Thursday, August 14, 2014

Dirty Politics

This post is part of the 100 Days Project
Day 35
As I listen to the response being made to Nicky Hager's book (Dirty Politics) by both prime minister John Key and the MP Judith Collins, I'm struck by how often and how vociferously each of them dismiss the book's contents as unfounded and its writer as 'a left-wing conspiracy theorist', even though neither have read or engaged with the content of the book at all.  But this is absolutely by design.
I hear on the grapevine that the midnight oil was indeed burning last night on the Beehive's 9th floor (which contains the prime minister's office) and it seems clear that staffers were frantically reading the book and confecting response strategies which didn't require any of the main players in the National Party to get to grips with its detail.  Far easier to take a simple position and keep grinding away at it until it becomes 'truth'.
In media interviews I've watched tonight, with Key especially, the style of the response is very similar to a bad comments thread on a blog - it makes sweeping generalisations about the 'other side' and links these consistently to something bad - for example the left all become 'conspiracy theorists' as the phrase 'left-wing conspiracy theorist' gets repeated ad infinitum in reference to Nicky Hager.  And, of course, as this strategy is designed to do, real debate becomes muffled and reduced.  Complex issues such as the ethical and legal dimensions of what the book contains become nothing more than mud-slinging from someone with a biased world-view, all without the substance of Hager's accusations ever needing to be addressed.
It's terribly ironic that Key is denying all significant links to blogger Cameron Slater when he, in person and with the press, is using the exact same techniques Slater does on the blog.  I think the medium has become the message - there is a meta level to this which suggests Dirty Politics is very close to the bone.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Sick.

This post is part of the 100 Days Project
Day 34
I've been down with a bad cold over the last five days and before that I was just bunking off, so I have a lot of retrospective writing to do.
As I write now, this minute, my partner, the sysop at New Zealand's largest left-wing blog (thestandard.org.nz), is watching a mass of comments appearing as Nicky Hager's book "Dirty Politics" cuts a swathe through the blogosphere.  If you're not someone with a specific interest in New Zealand politics, the implications of organised right-wing smear campaigns via "Whale Oil", the blog of one Cameron Slater, will be lost on you, but this is what the book addresses, using as its base material 8GB of emails posted to Hager on a USB drive.  National Party leadership, including Jason Ede from the prime minister's office and Judith Collins, are in the mix, as is John Key (that's our prime minister if you're not from around here).
As I was reminded during a conversation with a solidly centrist work friend today, I am left-wing unto death, but rather than deriving satisfaction from the right-wing blood that is surely spilling as I type, I find the revelations in the book's preface (released here online) very depressing. According to Hager, Slater's campaigns have intimidated journalists and news outlets.  They have also kept the focus of news media and other public venues off political issues and debate and on the personal lives of politicians outside National.  But possibly worst of all, there has been "concerted manipulation of National's candidate selection process".  All three points represent serious harm to the fabric of democracy in this country.  The first two because they switch people off politics and because they make it impossible to vote in an informed way, while the third point represents a literal infringement of democratic process.
I have no doubt that there will a lot of activity on the blogs tonight and I would imagine that the midnight oil is burning bright at the Beehive as Winston Peter's office has already sent through a press-release as well as an advisory.  What I hope is that enough of us understand, past the accusations, the spin and the commentary, that we are brought low, as a democracy.  I hope we remember that and find a way to do something about it.

Wine at Old Government House


This post is part of the 100 Days Project
Day 27
I freely admit that in posting the photo above I'm cheating on the assignment I've given myself for my 100 Days Project. The photo is a record of a couple of drinks I had with my friend Troy after work more than a year ago. I like it, although it's not perfect. I made it with my iphone using an app called Retrica and it's one of the pictures that made me want to start doing photography again. 
I find photography allows me to be more present in a time and place than writing does. Especially when traveling, I find myself more engaged with where I am and what's happening around me when I'm looking through the lens, and this is something I really value and like. So maybe this post isn't entirely a cheat after all...

Gaza

This post is part of the 100 Days Project
Day 26
I have opinions about the situation in Gaza. I feel they're uninformed but it's impossible not to have them.  My current thinking is summarised in a comment I made on a Facebook thread following a Huffington Post article I shared - you can see it below.  One of the positions the author of the article took was that Hamas are allowing children to die because it makes for Western sympathy and useful media spin.
"I wrote something this morning about clever strategies and dead children but it gets endlessly recursive. Israel wins because Hamas is wiping itself out by allowing Palestinian children aka future Hamas members to be killed, no - Hamas wins because Israel doesn't have that many bombs and eventually the West will step in on Gaza's side to end the slaughter, no - wait - nobody wins because this is SHIT. Death like this makes me vomit in my mouth."
For a primer I had this article recommended by a friend.  It's been written by someone with a giant intellect and a somewhat frightening interest in war and is probably worth consideration.

Cafe art


This post is part of the 100 Days Project

Day 25

I love this image.  I took this photo of it in a cafe in summer, meaning to use it as wallpaper on my phone, and then forgot about it.  I wish I could identify the artist.

Rain


This post is part of the 100 Days Project

Day 24

It's raining and although I wanted to go for a walk because my back is hurting, this put me off.  So I took some pictures of what I could see without going into the rain.  This is the view from my back door.

Probiotics and mood


This post is part of the 100 Days Project
Day 23
In a previous blog post I mentioned in passing that I when I take probiotics, my mood (especially anxiety) is noticeably, if subtly improved.  The amazing thing about this to me is that I had no idea that gut and mood are linked before I started taking the probiotics.  I was puzzled as to what had happened until I went googling and found articles summarising recent research findings on the subject.  It's therefore unlikely my observations were due to the placebo effect.  
Lactobacillus acidophilos Rosell-52 and Bifidobacterium longum Rosell-175 have been cited in a French trial report as reducing anxiety.  This occurs because the bacteria release neurotransmitters including serotonin, dopamine and gamma-Aminobutyric acid.  The gut has been called the 'second brain' because the enteric nervous system which runs it requires significant amounts of these neurotransmitters, but once in the system, they also have an affect on our 'first brain' and thus our moods.
Today I purchased a bottle of a more complete probiotic than I've taken before.  It has more of the bacteria likely to improve mood.  I'm interested to see what the results might be.  

A chance to give, and go, back

Volunteers from p3 Foundation play with children at a rural village school in Kalimpong, West Bengal, India.
This post is part of the 100 Days Project
Day 22
At the end of 2012 I shot a promo video for an NGO working on ground-up village development in Kalimpong.  At that time I had the privilege of meeting Saom Namchu who runs the NGO and has a great deal of commitment, passion and ideas, and an amazing ability to get shit done.
Over the last five years or so the majority of homes and rural government schools in the Kalimpong area (hundreds of families and thousands of people) have been afforded access to toilets and a clean, year-round supply of water.  These projects involve a project contract between the NGO and the village.  The NGO supplies skilled labour and materials, and the village, many of whom are day labourers, supply the unskilled labour.  The village makes decisions about their projects and the resources involved at village meetings, which draw on a cross-section of people, and then when both parties are satisfied the projects are signed off.  
As the government is now supplying toilets and water projects, the NGO is moving into education, which I'm pretty passionate about.  Since 2012 it's been my mission to go back to Kalimpong and offer workshops on media production for NGOs and schools, since that's what I know how to do, and because I know from my first trip that contact with the wider world is greatly appreciated by those who are resource-poor.
I assumed it would be a simple affair of me showing up with a few scrounged cameras and having fun with some kids and maybe a workshop with a handful of adults.  However Saom has run with my idea, and decided to create an entire two-day workshop covering social media communications, MS Office software, shooting and editing videos, and photography, with a photographer and film production tutor coming in from other parts of India as well.
So I will be starting to fundraise to pay for my airfare and accommodation quite soon, as well as starting to develop a curriculum.  And it's very exciting!

In America

Alcatraz and the American flag.  June 2014
This post is part of the 100 Days Project

Day 21

I took this photo on the boat back from Alcatraz, egged on by my friend Kelly who thought the flag flying on the stern would make a nice addition to the composition.  We looked at the resulting images on my camera and Kelly said 'because nothing says America like the flag, and prison'.
Kelly lives in San Francisco and is as well-placed to comment as anyone else. However as I traveled around the States, I was struck by how open and trusting people were.  I literally lost count of the number of times well-meaning tourists would walk up to me, shove their expensive electronics into my hands and say 'can you take my picture?'.  I also received more compliments about my personal appearance than I ever have in my life.  Mostly on my hair colour, but sometimes on my cut or the top I was wearing.  One woman asked I had been on the TV that day. It was very strange.
I'm not sure this openness and generosity of spirit would have extended to me if I was not a white person, but it was, naturally, an enormous contrast to what I know about America. The land of individual enterprise, competition, no safety nets.  The land of gun crime, extremes of income and randomised street violence leading to lengthy incarceration, often of innocent people.  
In the end, I concluded that as I was mostly in tourist areas, people were in a holiday frame of mind.  But I also wondered if America's vastness and its lack of social welfare means that in order to function, citizens have to frame everyone around them as a neighbour.  There are no strangers here, just friends we haven't met.  
It certainly made for a pleasant, if somewhat puzzling vacation.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Oil-pulling

This post is part of the 100 Days Project

Day 20

Oil pulling is an Ayurvedic technique for oral hygiene which is doing the rounds on social media.  It involves putting a tablespoon of oil in your mouth and pulling it around and between your teeth for 20 minutes before spitting it out and rinsing with hot salt water.  The practice has been touted on as the cure to everything from bad breath to eczema to cancer and adherents also claim it whitens teeth.  
I first heard about oil pulling when I was in Las Vegas, as the guide on my tour of the Grand Canyon was a big fan.  He didn't mention anything to do with cancer, just oral health benefits, and I thought I'd try it once to see if it cleared out more than the average amount of gunk.  It didn't - at least not on the first try.  I was still able to floss out all kinds of things.
So - having had the experience I did a bit more reading and - surprise - oil-pulling has been debunked by pundits who prefer science to inform their choices.  The downside includes slightly increased risk of lipoid pneumonia (which can result from aspirated oil), with unproven development of plaque that's harder to clean.  A slight reduction in oral bacteria is apparently true, but is slightly less effective than chlorhexidine mouthwash.
In my personal experience of oral health, the best thing you can do for your teeth is to cut out sugar and complex carbohydrates.  When I did this I had so little plaque that my dentist commented on it.  But this information is purely anecdotal and I'm telling you by way of the internet, so I urge you to draw your own conclusions.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Casual Sex Project


This post is part of the 100 Days Project

Day 18

An NYU professor, Zhana Vrangalova, has started a website that allows people to detail their experiences of casual sex.  This has grown out of her work in developmental psychology and a PhD about casual sexual encounters.  
The stories shared on thecasualsexproject.com are an interesting read - slightly titilating for sure but also oddly profound, especially if you read a good handful of them together. The writers range in age from 19 -70 and have multifarious sexual orientations, and the majority of reported hook-ups are postitive experiences.  Unsurprisingly, it appears that desire is experienced in a very similar way by most humans, and that genuine physical desire is the single most important thing in determining if a one-night stand is going to be perceived positively by the people involved in it. 
I think there's something in that for everyone...

Monday, July 28, 2014

Inequality of access and representation in tech

This post is part of the 100 Days Project
Day 18
So - it comes as no surprise to me to see that, particularly in the developing world, there is significant gendered inequality of access to the internet, or the expertise to locate information when it is available:
Twitter has recently published statistics on its own diversity in the interests of transparency and because it believes the make-up of its staff should reflect the users the company serves.  It some as no surprise there either that women make up only 10% of the tech workers in the company, while having much higher representation elsewhere.
The question on my mind right now is - how did these two situations come to be?  I recognise that the answer is a) complex and b) that despite the common issue of gender, inequality of access is not the same as inequality of representation.  Poverty and historical inequalities in rural environments have a lot to do with the former, for example.
While I passionately believe that vulnerable non-Western communities must address inequality of access in order to thrive, the fact that women in the West are often outside of tech continues to intrigue me. We've had good employment and educational opportunities since before the tech boom, but somehow tech has still become a 'gendered' career path.  Which leaves woman as non-participants in decisions which affect us deeply, while missing out on some truly astounding salaries, work flexibility and lots of other perks.  Is it identity politics?  Gendered educational expectations?  Or something else?    

Diabetes!

Bus stop, Great North Road, Auckland

This post is part of the 100 Days Project

Day 17

I saw this poster on a bus stop while walking to my sister's.  Look closely for the word 'Diabetes'. Who is the marker-pen-carrying wit roaming Grey Lynn, protesting advertising, the industrial food complex and unfortunate health statistics?  Whoever it is made me laugh out loud on the street like a hyena.  I prefer funny with my subversion.  Ole!

At Berkeley

The Clocktower at University of California Berkeley,  June 2014

This post is part of the 100 Days Project
Day 16
Veteran observational filmmaker Frederick Wiseman's At Berkeley is a four-hour meditation on the value of publicly-funded tertiary education, as seen through the lens of life at the University of California Berkeley.  I saw this at Rialto Cinema as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival in Auckland.
This film is a very interesting piece of work for so many reasons.  It's the first film I've seen by Wiseman which eschews 16 mm in favour of high definition video, it's ridiculously long and it clearly takes the side of those in charge which previous films about institituons (for example High School and Titticut Follies) clearly do not.  This is of course because the film's beautifully articulated position that public education in America is vital and in danger aligns it closely with the beliefs of Berkeley's administration.  
It's an amazing film - the length is justified as it allows the audience to experience life at Berkeley - classes, debates, impassioned youth, cooler older heads, the campus, the workers, the administration, all adding another dimension to our understanding - but its gruelling to watch too.  Weak bladders are surely put to the test.
For a detailed and thoughtful review which largely echoes my own thoughts, Roger Ebert's website is the business.  And if you get a chance to see At Berkeley at the cinema take it.  I can't imagine any universe in which it would get a general release.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Pulp: a film about life, death and supermarkets




Filmmaker Florian Habicht before a screening of his documentary 
Pulp: A Film about life, death and supermarkets, Civic Theatre, Auckland, July 25
This post is part of the 100 Days Project
Day 15
Florian Habicht's Pulp: a film about life, death and supermarkets is pretty much a work of genius.  I don't always respond this way to Habicht's films so either I'm growing more sophisticated (unlikely) or something else is at work.  
A meditation on fame, aging, music, sex and, yes, death, the documentary is driven as much by the 'common people' of Pulp's home town Sheffield as it is by so-real-it-hurts footage of the band's last ever show - in Sheffield.  The film winds its narrative between songs Common People and Hardcore allowing the thematic concerns of both to surface in a way which is both sophisticated and satisfying.  
Female singing groups, a female dance troup, a musician, three random little old ladies, a newspaper seller, two kids and a couple of butchers all share their thoughts on Pulp, their home town and life, in the candid and charming way audiences have come to expect of characters in Habicht's films.  
The fans are something else - the woman from Georgia, USA, the guy from Germany (interviewed in German because Habicht is that rare breed - a truly bilingual New Zealander), two Australian twins and an English girl who leads a round of Underwear while waiting with other hardcore fans to get entrance to the concert hall.  Their zealous love of the band serves as a perfect, understated reminder that Pulp are FAMOUS, even now, and this leads to a contemplation of what that means for the band members, most of whom (frontman Jarvis Cocker excepted perhaps) seem to aspire to be as ordinary as possible.  Indeed, an early sequence has drummer, Nick Banks, explaining that Pulp sponsored his daughter's soccer team, so now his daughter gets to be embarrassed that her dad's 'crap band' is all over their tops.  Oh the self-deprecation!   Later on guitarist Mark Webbey recounts a grim time in the 90s when he hated what he was doing passionately, his desire for a regular life thwarted by having to play in a band to thousands of screaming, happy fans.  
Cocker opens the film and later shares his thoughts about fame, performance and aging - all of which are things he is, of course, intimately connected with.  He says he doesn't get a buzz off aging but can live with it.  His young female fans couldn't care less about the fact that he's old enough to be their dad.  One of them waxes lyrical about his on-stage thrusting (of which there is plenty).  The film uses an interview with an academic to address the way Cocker writes about sex, which is to render the embarrassing awkward bits into song. Cocker says he got into a band so girls would make the first move.  Which leads the narrative, inevitably, to the song Hardcore.
For Cocker the Sheffield show is a chance to do their final concert properly.  In the film it's certainly rendered as a good gig - the venue sequences are the most powerful, interesting record of a concert I've ever seen in cinema, with multiple cameras in the thick of the experience, capturing the fans and the band from each other's perspective, up close and personal. The way the band, Cocker in particular, interacts with the audience is stunningly open.  A Canadian reviewer suggested that for Pulp "sing along with the common people" isn't just a lyric - it's a mission statement.'  All of which sets us up to feel the band's 'death' more profoundly.  The final frames before the credits roll are given to the fans standing outside the concert venue, contemplating a return to every day life.  For them, and for the band, the journey is over.  
If at times I wanted more of the band's history I'm willing to forgive the omission.  The film's concept was so humble and such a gentle and interesting mediation on the process of living. This is the last thing you would expect of a band documentary, except that this is a Florian Habicht film.  The collaboration with Pulp was obviously a meeting of minds.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Pigeon antics?

Pigeon wandering down Karangahape Road, Auckland City

This post is part of the 100 Days Project

Day 14

Ok - this is a small piece of sheer speculation, but has anyone else noticed that city pigeons in New Zealand are a) huge, and b) often possessed of a subtle patch of iridescent blue/green feathers around their heads and necks?  I wouldn't have even noticed except that I've recently been in the US and the pigeons are smaller and darker there.  This observation or hallucination has caused me to wonder if the city birds are interbreeding with the odd kereru.  The internet has been no help so I may remain doomed to wonder.